There are a lot of things I liked about HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. I appreciated the chic Eileen Fisher-esque linen gowns worn by the show’s Italian tweens, I enjoyed the detailed vistas of 1950s Naples, and I loved the precocious child actors chosen to populate the show’s world. But throughout, I couldn’t help but feel that the show was missing an essential feature of the books: the index of character names.
When I first read Elena Ferrante’s epic quartet, The Neapolitan Novels, a few years ago — at the height of my Ferrante fever — I became weirdly obsessed with the indexes. Each book opens with a list of characters, grouped by family unit. We are introduced to the shoemaker’s family and the grocer’s family and the fruit-seller’s family and the baker’s family, followed by short descriptions of each member. This intertwining network of clans serve as the basis for the books’ social world, which grows more complex over time. My time reading the series was spent in a flurry of perpetual motion — flipping to the front of the book, flipping back to where I was, then flipping back to the front again — to make sure I was right about where each character fit in (I developed carpal tunnel right around the time Elena Greco, the porter’s daughter, and Lila Cerullo, the shoemaker’s daughter, graduated primary school).
In written form, these indexes are partly designed to help readers keep track; The Neapolitan Novels are dense books with lots of complicated relationships and characters with similar-sounding Italian names (the protagonists are Rafaella, also called Lila or Lina, and Elena, also called Lenu or Lenuccia). But they also serve as markers of the reader’s journey. When you open the first book, these names mean nothing to you. Yet with each book, as you get to know the characters better, the descriptions at the beginning get more and more detailed. Little boys we once knew simply as the grocer’s son or the train conductor’s son become pivotal players in our protagonists’ lives: complicated men whose flaws and foibles we come to know intimately. By the fourth book, I felt I had grown up with these families. Sometimes I even found myself reciting the characters’ names before bed as a mindfulness technique: Enzo Scanno the fruit-sellers son, Gigliola Spagnulo the pastry-maker’s daughter, Pasquale Peluso the carpenter’s son. It seemed to me there was something uniquely poetic about this cast of characters with their simple, workmanlike qualifiers, because the overlapping lives depicted in the books aren’t simple at all.
Watching the new HBO adaptation, I found myself feeling nostalgic for these indexes, and the dense reading experiences that came along with them. By episode two, I had the wherewithal to open up the book with the index on my lap, so that whenever someone said someone’s name I could cross-reference it with the names on the page and remind myself why I was supposed to care about them. This is probably why my favorite part of the show is the title credits sequence, which is kind of like a visual stand-in for the index that scrolls through old-timey photographs of all the different families. (Still, the portraits don’t have name labels, nor do they change as the characters grow up — how am I supposed to square the hunky Timothée Chalamet-esque teen Nino with the cute kid in the credits?)
While the show is satisfying if you know the characters already, I can’t imagine it serving as a worthy introduction for nonreaders. Over the course of the novels, schoolyard rivalries turn into violent ideological battles between fascists and communists; schoolyard crushes turn into romantic relationships shot through with pain and violence. Little boys and girls grow up. To what extent are we copies of our parents, reflections of our peers? Can we ever escape our upbringings? These are questions the books explore, and it’s what the index brings us back to with the start of each new one — the many versions of ourselves that exist throughout our lives, the ways we are both solid and ever-changing. Yet absent the books’ detailed descriptions and consistent repetition of names and relationships, the characters onscreen become merely two-dimensional avatars of their literary selves.
As many critics have pointed out, the show is such a faithful adaptation of the books that it often feels like watching a supplemental PowerPoint presentation designed to be consumed while you read. Which, again, isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it: I loved seeing which actors were chosen to play the characters and whether they looked like their family members. I enjoyed seeing the kids recast as they got older (as well as how it measured up to my own casting attempt). But compared to the immersive world of the books, this type of viewing felt facile — like I was gamifying the novels that had had such a profound impact on me. It felt like a shallow level of enjoyment, one resulting from the little drips of dopamine I got from making connections between the book and the show — “I didn’t realize Enzo the fruit-seller’s son was blonde! Ofcourse young Nino would look like Timothée Chalamet” — rather than the intense emotional and psychological voyage the books took me on.
My recommendation for would-be viewers is that you read the books first, and then go into the television show expecting to be pleasantly validated, instead of awed. And as you watch, feel free to have the index of characters open on your lap — there’s no shame in needing to and deriving pleasure from sorting your Pelusos from your Cerullos, your Antonios from Alfonsos. At least one benefit of watching instead of reading: You won’t even need to flip the pages.